A woman named C. called me a couple of weeks ago with yet another sad story about how exposure to toxic chemicals has resulted in a disastrous situation. It is hard to know what to say to someone like C. because it would take a substantial amount of money for her to find appropriate housing, and she has already run through her life savings. I tell someone like this that I hope that my fragrance-free workplaces campaign will within a few years help reduce the use of air fresheners and other fragrances, but that is cold comfort for someone who is looking for a place to lay her head tonight.
As a child I suffered from many food and environmental allergies. I grew up in a cold, moldy home built in the late 1800s. It was originally heated with coal, I was told. Natural gas heat floor registers were in place while I was growing up there. We had a natural gas heater in the hallway upstairs running while we slept.
At the age of eight, I would accompany my aunt on weekends to look at model mobile homes because she wanted to buy one to live in. I can remember it like it was yesterday. We walked into the display models with no windows open for ventilation, and I would be overtaken by a strange, powerful odor. My eyes would water, my nose would run, my lungs would hurt, and I would cry uncontrollably. People said I was “just sensitive.”
Later I developed a strange brown itchy rash below my lips. Then an oozing rash developed in the creases inside my elbows and behind my knees. I would put Kleenex in the crooks of the elbows to sop up the pus until I got to school and took off my coat, all the while hoping my coat would not stick to the pus rash and tear my skin. I often complained of stomach pain and was considered “an emotional child.”
My mother died from uremia and pneumonia when I was six and she was twenty-six. Dust bothered me, as did my stuffed animals. I would cough what seemed to be all night long. I have scoliosis of the spine, which may have been because I had to sleep anpropped up on three pillows to help with the coughing. I don’t believe an allergist was ever consulted. I took no medicine, nor did I receive injections for allergies.
In my early teens I became very ill with bronchitis, pneumonia, and mononucleosis on a regular basis. Several different antibiotics and over-the-counter medications were prescribed. The side effects of the OTC meds kept me from going to sleep. In school I was really tired because I could not sleep because of these medications I took at night to relieve the coughing and congestion.
After college, I worked in many fields. I have three college degrees and studied business, marketing, sociology, and anthropology. I worked in an automobile manufacturing plant prior to attending college, where I was exposed to dichloromethane. I did office work, worked in grade schools, hospital settings, all the while exposed to the usual environmental toxins—secondhand smoke, copiers, cleaners, perfume, pesticides, etc.
In my thirties, I decided to look for work that took me outside. After a brief period working as a landscaper, which of course exposed me to pesticides and other toxic chemicals, I discovered archeology and began that career. In the field of archeology I was exposed to many more environmental toxins, including mold, herbicides, exhaust fumes, DDT, nail polish and white out used to catalogue and label artifacts, and unknown residues in disturbed soils. I continued in the field of archeology into my forties. In between projects or during winter weather I worked as a bartender and was exposed to lots of secondhand smoke.
I worked for the National Park Service and engineering firms doing archaeology. In Philadelphia my team excavated the site of the National Constitution Center, unearthing type that may have been associated with Ben Franklin’s printing activities, eighty shaft features (wells and privies), and the first African American cemetery. I also worked in the Grand Canyon as an archaeologist and wild-land firefighter.
Then I went to Gettysburg National Military Park, where I had several positions. Historic preservation work there exposed me to dust, exhaust, solvents, propane, building materials, paint, etc. Later I became a state-certified pesticides handler with the park, spraying gallons and gallons of herbicides for their Historic Land Rehabilitation Program to eradicate invasive species. I took a year off from spraying herbicides to work for my local conservation district for thirteen months in a water-damaged building. I returned to Gettysburg for one more year of spraying, and then I crashed. My digestive system shut down for six months. I could not digest my food.
I eventually made my way to Las Vegas, where I was finally able to obtain documentation that enabled me to obtain Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). During this time I worked seven days a week for three years to pay my living expenses and pay for the documentation that enabled me to eventually obtain SSDI.
My father invited me into his home during the time that I was applying for SSDI and waiting to get it. After one month, however, he told me I could no longer stay in his home because I was “going to too many doctors, doing too much paperwork, costing him too much money [even though I bought my own food], and me being there was hard on his marriage.” While I was at an appointment in Phoenix in November 2016, my father put Drano in the bathroom drains in the bathroom I was using. He left the bottle in the bathroom so that I would see it. A few days later I was told I had to leave. My stepmother handed me a blanket and a pillow, and my father said, “Good-luck, kid!” I was homeless in a town 2,000 miles away from my hometown in Pennsylvania.
For many months I slept in abandoned buildings, a renovated garage, in driveways, in Walmart parking lots. I begged money from churches to stay in unsafe, toxic motels After eight months of homelessness and spending my life’s savings of $13,000, I finally received SSDI in November 2017. I moved back to Pennsylvania only to have to live in my car again in parking lots and driveways.
My father’s nephew offered me an old trailer to live in the day I was planning to take my life. I was literally planning my death when the phone rang. I stayed in the toxic trailer for six months. An indoor air quality test showed very high levels of mold. The heating system was natural gas forced hot air. I turned off the gas cook stove and heated with space heaters until December 2017. When I could not get the building heated above 50°, I left the trailer and had my friend turn the gas heat back on.
I moved into an apartment building with four units; it was the same old brick house that my father’s mother had lived in during the 1960s. A pastor and his wife and my realtor cleaned the apartment with vinegar and baking soda. A friend cleaned the carpet for free. Everything was fine until the first night I slept there. Downstairs neighbors were using a wax warmer air freshener. I drove myself to the emergency room, where they said I was having “a panic attack.” The third night in the apartment, it was back to the emergency room. This time they said “anxiety reaction,” “sensitivity to multiple environmental triggers,” with air fresheners being a possible cause. I notified the landlord about the ER visits, and she asked my neighbors to refrain from using wax warmer air fresheners. Now they spray an air freshener and continually use patchouli perfume.
I am suffering from chemical pneumonia and have to leave my apartment in the middle of the night when they spray and sleep on a pew in a Catholic church. I have written to local, state, and federal agencies for help with reasonable accommodations and have contacted the local Center for Independent Living to no avail.
My health is dependent upon my neighbors’ actions. I believe that this is a public health issue. I am being deprived of my right to use and enjoy my dwelling. The air freshener is affecting my health, quality of life, and well being. My neighbors know of my condition but are unwilling to help me by not using air fresheners.